Why we need to rethink our societies


David Gann & Mark Dodgson

Applications being developed for the use of artificial intelligence, robotics, big data and the Internet of Everything are enormously consequential. Yet the disruptive effects of innovation are nothing new: the farm worker, transported to the industrial factory in the latter half of the 18th century, would have experienced levels of devastation to their lives and society that make the present changes seem minor in comparison.

While society has made transitions in the past, contemporary reality is extremely troublesome. According to an Oxford University study, 47% of US jobs are threatened by computerisation. Casualisation or zero-hours contracts pose threats to many. Large proportions of those put out of work will be in their 40s and 50s, with decades to wait before they can claim pensions. A new poverty trap may be opening up. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney warns of the “first lost decade” in wage growth “since the 1860s”. As Joseph Schumpeter argued 75 years ago, innovation is a process of creative destruction. The social and political challenge is to accentuate the creative and mitigate the destructive.

We need to balance the debate that celebrates the virtues of rapid change, agility and entrepreneurship; with consideration of the ways societies, and their citizens, cope with and benefit from the considerable turbulence generated by technological change. The political backlash to this comparative lack of concern is seen in Trumpism and Brexit. Globalisation, productivity and innovation may be the mantra for their beneficiaries, but for many they mean job losses, working harder, and ever more uncertainty at work.

The challenges are immense. Take the car industry: responsible for more than 50 million jobs and perhaps incalculable wider economic benefits. Yet its products pollute, and more than 1 million people every year are killed on roads. We may have a solution: electric and driverless cars. But the largest employment group in the USA is truck, van and taxi drivers, many of whom would lose their jobs.

If you own a Tesla car that needs maintenance, the problem is often fixed by an overnight software update rather than taking it to the nearby garage. The Taiwanese contract electronics firm Foxconn, maker of the iPhone, has replaced half its workforce with robots since the iPhone 6 was launched. Accentuating the creative and mitigating the destructive in such circumstances is extremely confronting.

There are many pessimistic views on the onslaught of technology, with suggestions that all but the most creative and skilful of jobs are under threat – though computers are being trained to take on creative and even artistic functions too, as Martin Ford explains in The Rise of the Robots.

Jobs can be protected temporarily and expensively from technological progress, but, in the end, what matters is social adjustment. Technology is an artefact of the society that creates and uses it, and its impact results from its co-evolution with citizens and institutions. Algorithms are not impartial, but products of culture, politics and society – the same things that shape the humans who design and use them.

The real question is how we adjust to a world with significantly less of what we know as work. Companies have a duty to use their expertise in disruption to help deal with this enormous social turmoil.

Technological disruption is exacerbating social inequalities, and we need to talk seriously about the virtues of a social wage. We need to fund people to work, without necessarily being employed, in a manner that allows them to help others or practice their skills in ways that they find meaningful and rewarding. To this end, education needs to change from readying people for a (probably non-existent) job to preparing them to create self-defined work.

In a world where conventional jobs are fading away, but we have greater opportunities to “live wisely”, T S Eliot’s dictum, that culture is what makes life worth living, is an important guide.

This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum and can be read in full here.


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